What the first Trump-Biden presidential debate means for the Proud Boys

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Men wear “Make America Great Again” hats and carry large flags, including one that says “Proud Boys Cleveland.” July 19, 2020. Photo by Becker1999/CC BY 2.0

Tuesday’s presidential debate involved a lot of yelling, interrupting and name calling — mostly by Donald Trump. He refused to condemn white supremacists when asked to do so by moderator Chris Wallace. Trump told the alt-right group the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”

Afterward, the Proud Boys exulted online and mocked up a t-shirt with their logo that says “stand back, stand by.”

KCRW speaks with Alexandra Minna Stern, author of the book “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination.”

KCRW: What did you make of Trump telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by?”

Alexandra Minna Stern: “It was a low in debate with many lows. I read it as both a refusal to condemn white supremacy and the far right, and as an explicit shoutout to the Proud Boys.”

What were the Proud Boys saying online last night?

“They were quite thrilled with a specific shoutout and the fact they'd been named in the presidential debate. And they actually had been instructed to do something, which is to stand back and to stand by at the ready for whatever action they might be called into. And if you look at tweets and other posts online, there's a lot of ‘we're at the ready, sir, tell us what you need.’”

Is there any other way to read this? Trump supporters are saying, ‘He clearly meant to say stand down?’

“I would say no. … We should not give Trump another opportunity to try to talk himself out of what he actually said, which is where he was given an opportunity to explicitly condemn white supremacy and Neofascist organizations and he did not do it. And whether he got tongue tied or tongue twisted, I mean, those tactics are very much the tactics of generally the alt right and these groups as well, where they like to claim plausible deniability. It's all basically from the same handbook.”

What is in it for Trump to say that with regards to the Proud Boys? It’s worth noting that Joe Biden first singled out the Proud Boys when Trump said, “Give me a name.”

“It basically is akin to Trump throwing kind of red meat to his base, so to speak. And he knows that Proud Boys and similar organizations are the ones who have been out in the streets in Portland to have at least overlapped with organizations that have impeded people from voting. So I'm sure he is quite aware of that in some way, shape, or form.

And I think something else that's important to mention ... is the Proud Boys were founded in 2016 in the context of that election, and really, in terms of what they did was rally a lot of support for Trump both through their meetups and through their extensive meaning. And they were part of the alt right that was busy memeing Pepe the Frog and the rest of it all the way to the election.

We're seeing a kind of a repeat and also a reset in the 2020 election in a very different context, obviously, with COVID and the anti-racist protests, which the Proud Boys are interpreting on their own terms and using them as justifications to go out into the streets and try to bring people to their cause and to their agenda.”

How violent are the Proud Boys?

“Well, they certainly like to engage in a lot of fetishization of violence in terms of Second Amendment rights, carrying guns, aligning themselves with militias and so on. If you ask the spokespeople … for the Proud Boys, they will say that they're just a good old fraternal organization. Gavin McInnes, who founded it, said it was a modern day ‘Elks Club’ and they like to do good deeds, like serve lunches and senior centers and those types of activities.

However, if you look at what they're actually doing on the streets, and the kind of posts that they're putting on their social media pages, what you see is strong tendencies towards violence, engaging in violence in the streets, often through like fisticuffs and kicking people and all in out assaults like what happened in New York City several years ago, which actually resulted in a legal trial by the state of New York against them.

So I would say yes, I mean, they are an extremist group with violent tendencies that is aligned in the broad family of white supremacist groups. However, it's important to note that the Proud Boys are not an all-white organization. Their current leader is an Afro Cuban guy who lives in Miami. And they use that as one of the points to try to demonstrate that they are not racist, nor as they claim homophobic. Although many of their posts online would suggest otherwise.

What they are is exceedingly misogynistic and sexist through and through. So when I heard Trump calling them out, I heard him as much countenancing white supremacy as he was chest thumping his alpha maleness in a way that would resonate really strongly with the group like the Proud Boys.”

Do the Proud Boys have a vision for America that they're trying to see through? Or are they about showing up to protests and creating chaos and violence?

“I think there's a mixture of all of that in terms of who joins the Proud Boys and what their motivations are. When the group was founded, the idea really was to clean up men who were lounging around in their parents’ basement playing video games and watching too much porn. And that's why they had a series of initiation rituals that they wanted their initiates to follow, which included being beat up and reciting the names of breakfast cereals, and getting tattoos, and not masturbating, and a range of different things.

I think the world they would like to see is one in which there are very strict gender norms, where as they would say, men are men and women are women. And in which, you know, the left is squashed, diversity is squashed, and immigration is tightly controlled.”

During the debate, Donald Trump talked about encouraging his supporters to show up at the polls. He didn't say to do what in particular. But would that also be seen by the Proud Boys as a reason to show up at voting places and be intimidating?

“Yeah, I certainly think so. I mean, that is a very loud kind of dog whistle and an insinuation to come in and protect what he thinks is this fraudulent process, and to show up and make sure that there are not votes lost in the river or the trash, as he kept claiming in the debate.

So I think that that type of language of insinuation, and it's kind of like a nod and a wink, and the Proud Boys know what it means, and he knows what it means.”

If Trump loses the election, what happens with the Proud Boys?

“if Trump wins, the Proud Boys are going to feel vindicated. And if he loses, they're going to be aggrieved. And so either way, it's bad. I mean, that's one of the things about our moment is … we're stuck with this. We're stuck with this resurgence of white nationalism and Neofascism, whichever direction that election goes. And so that to me is just really scary for the future. Overall, the future landscape is one that looks scary until we get more of a dramatic cultural and social transformation.

… In a way, Obama's election was what galvanized a lot of these people to start getting organized and to meet up on social media. And if you think of it, the term ‘alt right’ was coined, I mean, that term has kind of fallen out of use, but it is good for tracking and understanding the rise of these movements. And that was coined in 2008. Its rise correlates with the Obama presidency, and the kind of birtherism and everything else that's thrown in there. And it's not just in the U.S., we're seeing these patterns in Europe and other parts of the world as well. So clearly, this is a global phenomenon of kind of a toxic populist nationalism.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Alexandra Minna Stern - author of “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate: How the Alt-Right is Warping the American Imagination”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Caleigh Wells